Respect-Focused Therapy: Honoring Pain, Yourself, and Others

Rear view of seven people holding hands on hill, gazing at purple and orange sunsetI’ve had the great fortune of being a therapist for the past 40 years. When I began this journey in grad school in 1974, I was told I would never make it in this field, nor should I, because I have cerebral palsy and use a wheelchair for mobility. This was my first real blast of bias and disrespect, encountered at age 22. Good that it happened then; I learned to navigate around such prejudice early and developed an informed emotional blueprint regarding that kind of experience that serves me to this day.

Over the past four decades I’ve had plenty of chances to put that blueprint to good use, both personally and professionally. Having worked with a wide variety of people with different life stories and sources of pain, I’ve come to realize that the experience of feeling deeply disrespected can lead to further disrespectful, if not abusive, patterns and be devastating for many.

In fact, the issue of feeling disrespected (or not) is the primary theme that has sifted to the top of what I see as most salient in psychotherapy. In my experience, people who have endured trauma, abuse, conflicted relationships, and/or struggles with addiction or mental health conditions have encountered their fair share of disrespect. Some people feel robbed of respect in significant and deep ways, if they ever felt like they experienced genuine respect at all.

Respect-focused therapy (RFT) aims to address this by utilizing the therapeutic relationship to set the stage for respectful interaction in a way that allows a person to feel genuinely respected, maybe for the first time. This experiential learning—of being respected by another human being in such a profound and holistic way—can lead the process of therapy toward a healing outcome.

As the process of illuminating and honoring pain as something separate from a person’s identity unfolds, it becomes easier to concentrate on wellness from the standpoint of self-respect. This can happen with the infusion of affirmation and sincere validation of one’s core strengths and values.

The first step is to become fully aware of the pain one holds. In effect, this involves the therapist and person in therapy holding a flashlight together in the dark, allowing the pain to be better seen and understood. In bringing the pain out of hiding, its intensity is often diminished. The idea from that point forward is to find a way of carrying what remains of the pain that is not quite as burdensome as it was in the beginning.

As the process of illuminating and honoring pain as something separate from a person’s identity unfolds, it becomes easier to concentrate on wellness from the standpoint of self-respect. This can happen with the infusion of affirmation and sincere validation of one’s core strengths and values. The restoration of identity and integrity comes out of reclaiming one’s uniqueness as goodness.

Interpersonal respect, or respect with and for others, then comes into play. Is the severity of the pain endured such that it creates a pattern of disrespectful interactions with others throughout a lifetime? Many people who have been abused or otherwise traumatized tend to learn to expect more trauma from others, perhaps feeling that is what they deserve. In some cases, people may become so angry at the world that they inadvertently create more conflicts. In respect-focused therapy, the therapist and person in therapy reflect upon how respect is about looking again, or reconsidering, and how that empowers more constructive communication. It’s also about feeling more valued in the relationship and how that creates a stronger bond.

Finally, respect-focused therapy is about instilling a universal or global sense of respect—for those with whom we don’t personally identify, people of different cultures, races, nationalities, sexual orientations, faiths, abilities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and so on. It is about embracing “otherness” rather than rejecting it. Respect, in its truest sense, is the active framework that allows for optimal human interaction and well-being.


Slay-Westbrook, S. (2016). Respect-Focused Therapy: Honoring Clients Through the Therapeutic Relationship and Process. New York, NY: Routledge.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Susanne Slay-Westbrook, LPC-S, LMFT-S, Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • bess

    November 16th, 2016 at 9:44 AM

    Timely article given the challenges that keep popping up day after day

  • Susanne S.

    November 18th, 2016 at 2:21 PM

    Yes, indeed they do! Thank you.

  • Nola

    November 16th, 2016 at 2:59 PM

    It sounds so noble, but wow, I guess I am just selfish but I want my therapy to be my own experience, to be about me and meeting my needs, everyone else has to take care of their own stuff.

  • Susanne S.

    November 18th, 2016 at 2:43 PM

    In no way do I think you are selfish. Your therapy should be about and for you, absolutely. RFT advocates for your recovery, including rebuilding self-respect. As one does so, the opportunities often widento have more interpersonal respect as well.

  • Justin

    November 17th, 2016 at 9:17 AM

    You say to honor the pain and I understand that I have to allow myself to recognize it. But why honor something that has in the end caused so much hurt?? Yes I see all that it has caused me, that hurt and anger, but you know, I don’t want to give something all that much honor when I don’t really even feel that it deserves it.

  • Susanne S.

    November 18th, 2016 at 3:19 PM

    Justin, your point is well made. What i mean by “honoring your pain,”is more about understanding the very real power and influence it’s had in your life, but then being able to separate it from your identity in that it does not overtake your life or define you. In this context, then, you can experience your pain exactly as it is, but independently of the person you are, to be more readily able to move beyond it. I hope this helps.

  • mia

    November 18th, 2016 at 11:18 AM

    I am sure that your own life lessons and discrimination that you faced early in your own life and career have made you a much more caring and compassionate therapist for others.

  • Susanne S.

    November 18th, 2016 at 2:45 PM

    Thanks, Mia. My life experiences have taught me how crucial respect can be in each of our lives. I believe that the more we experience it, the more we have to share.

  • Corinne

    November 19th, 2016 at 8:33 AM

    You think that this should be easy, to accept the respect that others have shown toward you. But the thing is when you have not grown up in that kind of environment where you have ever truly felt that kind of respect then I think that there are those of us who struggle with knowing how to actually accept it. We start to feel that we are unworthy of it because this is all that we have ever been made to feel. It is a process where you can not only learn to accept that love that someone else is showing you and being able to give some back in return without the fear of being reprimanded or hurt.

  • Susanne S

    November 20th, 2016 at 12:40 PM

    By no means do I believe that respect is easy to accept or to give. If it were, there would be little need for therapy and we would all live in a much kinder, fairer world because disrespectful behavior such as bullying and abuse would not be nearly as pervasive as it is. i do believe that it is the tremendous job of therapy to help create a safe and respect-filled environment and relationship that can nurture the healing process needed for trust and the sense of respect-worthiness to rebuild. My deepest hope is that you may find a space for this sort of healing to take place in your life.

  • peter

    November 27th, 2016 at 7:46 AM

    You have to admit that it can be hard to give respect back to someone when you feel like they have never much respected you

  • Mary S

    January 24th, 2020 at 10:30 PM

    Sad to say, but the place I have probably encountered the most lack of respect is in therapy. My worst therapist said things that I would never have imagined anyone saying (and that I cannot imagine myself ever saying to anyone). For example, once she said, “What you need is something like a mold that a brick is made in. When the mold is removed, the brick retains the shape of the mold. ” Another time, when I asked her a question to help me try to make sense of what she was doing and why, she didn’t answer my question, but instead said, “Do you realize you are asking me to give up my control?” I had never heard anyone say anything like that before.

  • Joanne G

    November 29th, 2021 at 6:09 AM

    To Mary S – I hope you found a different therapist. In knowing I was in grad school to become a therapist, I once had a therapist tell me that each session was about him and it was my responsibility to meet his expectations as I was essentially his being to shape and that I needed to adhere to his perspective. Another time he told me there were times he never knew whose night stand his false teeth would end up on. Anyone can go to school, pass a test and become a therapist. But if they lack true empathy as well as the ability to be professional, they will never succeed at being a therapist. Another therapist I went to spent the majority of MY session talking about the new bathing suit styles…

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